Image: Jiang Zhen’s wife Zhang Fang fetches water from a mineral water tank, on the second day after China’s capital Beijing issued its second ever “red alert” for air pollution, in Beijing, China, December 20, 2015. To match CHINA-POLLUTION/BUBBLE REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
By Alexandra Harney
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Liu Nanfeng has five air purifiers, two air quality monitors and a water purification system in his Beijing apartment. He buys organic. But still he worries for his 2-year-old daughter’s health.
“I feel safe at home, but when we go out to the mall, the indoor and outdoor air are the same,” the 34-year-old screenwriter said. “It feels hopeless.”
China’s persistent pollution and regular product safety scandals are driving an increasing number of consumers to build bubbles of clean air, purified water and safe products at home and in their cars.
Beijing’s city government has twice this month issued pollution “red alerts”, the first time it has triggered its most severe smog warning.
While there is no official data on their numbers, market analysts say Liu’s tastes reflect the concerns of a large and growing group of well-heeled urban consumers.
Foreign and domestic companies are starting to take notice of what could be called “bubble families”, a demographic whose emergence has been fueled by new technologies and the rapid spread of e-commerce.
Though air quality data has been available for years from the Chinese government – as well as the U.S. embassy and consulates around the country – public awareness of environmental threats is on the rise, especially since the February online release of journalist Chai Jing’s environmental documentary “Under the Dome”.
Websites such as Alibaba’s Taobao.com have made it easier to find products from overseas that are perceived as safer.
“A LIFE TO PROTECT”
For Xue Peng, a 32-year-old chemical engineer in Shanghai, his wife’s pregnancy three years ago changed everything. “I had a life I needed to protect. It was my responsibility to give him a safe environment,” he said.
Xue spent about 30,000 yuan ($4,627) on two air purifiers from Philips and Swedish company Blueair and another 20,000 yuan on a water purification system from U.S. firm Ecowater. He limited his toy purchases to big, trusted names such as Lego and Fisher Price.
“Parenthood is a huge catalyst for consumption and upgrading of certain products,” said Elisabeth de Gramont, Shanghai-based vice president at Jigsaw Communispace, a consumer research group.
Among upper middle class parents in China’s bigger cities, buying toys and skin care products for children from overseas is common, she said.
Min Yoo, managing director for China and Korea at market research firm YouGov, said that the group of Chinese consumers concerned about the environment and willing to spend money to protect themselves included “not just the white-collar cosmopolitan Chinese”.
“It also includes the 50-, 60-year-old local Chinese living in a city who has never been outside China, whose adult children would buy these products,” he said.
The growing public concerns have presented companies with an opportunity.
Bosch, the German electronics group, recently began selling an in-car air purifier and a small air quality monitor developed in China for the Chinese market.
Xiaomi, the homegrown electronics brand best known for its affordable phones, has launched a new line of air and water filters and monitors. During a November promotion, it sold more than 42,800 air purifiers. By mid-December, it had sold out of its newest model, released only on Nov. 24.
Origins Technology, a Beijing start-up, sold out of its 499 yuan Laser Egg handheld air quality monitors during this month’s smog wave. There is now a waitlist for the product.
THE PRICE OF SAFETY
Imports of bottled water are up sharply in volume terms, rising from 36 million litres two years ago to 46 million litres in the first 10 months of this year, according to Chinese customs.
Imports of food and live animals – Chinese customs includes them in the same category – rose 63 percent between 2011 and 2014. Online in China, Evian presents one of its boxes of water as “the choice of French mothers”.
Sales at Fruitday, an app and online platform for imported fruit, rose 150 percent in 2014 to 500 million yuan, the company said.
Reports of fake goods are common in China. Consumers who can afford to prefer more expensive products, said James Roy, associate principal at China Market Research Group.
High-end air purifiers such as the Blueair Pro XL cost 23,220 yuan, not much less than the average urban annual income of 28,844 yuan, according to government data.
Replacing all of the filters in other high-end air filters can cost hundreds of dollars.
Juliet Zhu, a TV presenter, had an air purifier and bought all of her two young daughters’ food and clothing from abroad. Her costs: as much as 20,000 yuan a month.
Two months ago, Zhu moved with her older daughter from Beijing to Sweden. She raves about the low cost of living, the delight of drinking from the tap, and the relief that her daughter can finally breathe freely.
(Reporting By Alexandra Harney; Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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